Woman returning to work after the pandemic

What the Pandemic Teaches Us About Employee Well-Being

5-minute read

Change Is Hard; Many Are Still Struggling

When the pandemic became real for everyone in March 2020, the rapid upending of everything was uncomfortable for some, traumatic for others. As the weeks turned into months and then a year, multiple studies reported the mental health strain on US adults, with up to 40% experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression at its peak (November 2020-January 2021). Since February the numbers have trended down approximately 25%, but still nearly 3 in 10 Americans have symptoms — a 200% increase over prepandemic reports.

We Believe What We Believe

Our tribal nature, a propensity toward confirmation bias, and an unwillingness to change our minds the longer we’ve held a belief, combine to create the perfect storm for social/media algorithms. The more we consume, the more we’re presented with similar messages, thereby validating the “correctness” of our position, further reinforcing our entrenched views. There’s no vaccine for bias. We all have it and always will.

We’re Fundamentally Compassionate

After the initial shock of shelter in place and work from home — and the relief of enough toilet paper — we began to allow ourselves to be who we really are: considerate, caring beings. From moving stories of healthcare heroes on the front lines to neighbor helping neighbor, we demonstrated our ability to care for each other in ways that emerge best when our backs are against the wall. And we (re)learned that kindness and gratitude are contagious, lifting happiness for the giver, recipient, and even observer.

What These Lessons Mean for Employer-Sponsored Wellness Programs

Change Fast and Slow

We’ll be tinkering with where and how people work for quite a while. We expect we’ll end up closer to prepandemic in-person work in 3-5 years than many think, particularly for organizations that value culture (not all do, even though they may say so in the annual report).

Waiting to find out isn’t an option for wellness managers. Hybrid is happening for most organizations; it’s a matter of degree and flavor. If you haven’t started, you’ll need to figure out how to deliver the best programs and experience to anyone, anywhere — fast.

The knee-jerk reaction is “everything online.” But moving wellness 100% online — no matter how awesome the service — risks losing something. If we’ve learned anything in the last 30 years, it’s that well-being is personal and communal.

If you have a fantastic online program or service, by all means exploit it. But don’t be in a rush to replace stellar in-person (communal) programming with digital (personal) just for convenience. Take it slow and figure out what makes the face-to-face program exceptional.

If you can move it online without losing the secret sauce, you’ll have the best of both worlds. And don’t be afraid to keep what’s been remarkable in person right where it is. Employees will go to great lengths to participate in remarkable.

Accept That the Hard to Reach May Be Unreachable

If you’ve attended a wellness conference in the last 20 years you’ve no doubt seen a session titled something like Reaching the Hard to Reach. It’s an enticing topic. After all, we’ve been trained to believe they’re the 20% who incur 80% of healthcare costs.

Regardless of whether these numbers hold true, the title presumes that reaching the hard to reach is a matter of “getting through to them.” It’s as if they’re just not able to see the light and if we shine it bright enough or in the right way, they will come around. That’s our bias… and it’s wrong.

In the history of workplace wellness no health coach, fitness instructor, online portal, wellness challenge, incentive scheme, or any other tool ever changed someone’s behavior long term. The individual comes to it on their own, when they’re ready.

You can — and should — create opportunities and an atmosphere where employees can be successful. But targeting a group because of their perceived higher risk/cost is likely to backfire. You may entrench them more deeply in the undesirable behaviors rather than move them toward healthier habits and enhanced well-being.

If they’ve made up their mind they don’t want to change, leave them alone and hope one day they’ll be ready.

Leverage Empathy, Collegiality

Your organization is filled with helpers: people who want the best for their colleagues/friends and are willing to support behavior change efforts. Create opportunities like these where everyone can flourish:

  • Peer-to-peer encouragement. Design online and in-person programs with a mentor function, where someone who has experienced successful health behavior change can be a coach for those trying to do the same. Maintain an available pool of those who’ve been there to offer guidance and confidence.
  • Crowdsourced success. Use a messaging/social app and invite participants to share their best tip for staying on track with a new walking routine, for example, or post about a recent win that may inspire others. Those facing a challenge or obstacle can ask for motivating ideas.
  • Buddy features. Build ways for employees to share their wellness experience with 2 or more work friends or family members and vice versa. It doesn’t have to include a lot of structure — just an easy way to communicate and see progress toward the goal. Across all of HES challenges, we see an average 26% increase in goal achievement when participants pair up.
  • Friendly teams. Giving groups of 4-5 the option to “compete” against other teams adds a dimension of camaraderie that can spread across the organization. Design it so anyone can win, not just the super-fit, and award prizes randomly to those who achieve a threshold, not just the top 3 (they’ll enjoy bragging rights; no further reward needed).
  • Robust wellness champion network. The benefits of an engaged group of champions go well beyond promoting services. As much as anything you’ll do, champions can shift the culture in a healthier direction, pull in support from leadership, and create a face for your program — particularly if you’re a department of 1 (or few). Here’s a how-to guide to get started plus ideas for training and recognition.
The pandemic will yield many more lessons for wellness leaders and health professionals. Increase our chance to help those we serve, today and into the future: Be alert, avoid premature conclusions, and stay open to questioning long-held beliefs.


Dean WitherspoonDean Witherspoon
Chief collaborator, nudger, tinkerer; leads the most inventive team creating well-being and sustainable living programs. Reach out if you’d like to talk about employee well-being, emotional fitness, or eco-friendly living.